Photos Show Polio's Past and Present

Noorullah Shirzada / AFP/ Getty Images

by Carly Roye


Humans have been living with and fighting to end polio for centuries. Over the last 40 years, organizations like Rotary International and the World Health Organization have worked tirelessly to put an end to this infectious disease, but thousands of children today still remain at risk. 

Take a look back at the fight to eradicate polio and some of the challenges we still face in putting this illness in the history books for good. 


Early 20th Century


In the early 20th century, polio paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children every year and was quickly becoming one of the most feared diseases of its time.  

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Isolation ward at an emergency hospital in Hickory, North Carolina treating child victims of the polio epidemic.

The Fifties


On March 26, 1953, at a time when the epidemic was at its worst, American scientist Dr. Jonas Salk announced that he had successfully found a vaccine to fight polio. The mass vaccinations that followed proved to be effective as the United States alone saw the number of cases drop dramatically from 35,000 in 1953 to just 5,300 in 1957.

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Asn eight-year-old girl receives a polio vaccine as she watches a television broadcast of Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinating a young boy, April 12, 1955. 
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American scientist and physician Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine.
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Polio Vaccine Being Shipped To Europe, 1955.
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A group of babies born to reformatory inmates who were the first to test the live virus polio vaccine.

the eighties


In the early 1980s, polio was on a steady decline as more and more adopted the easily-administered oral vaccine. By 1988, polio had all but disappeared from Western society, though the threat remained in more than 125 countries. That same year, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed to help further the global efforts to end the disease.

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Mother Teresa comforts a polio victim at a Home for the Destitute in Manila, 1982.

A new millennium


Though global efforts to eradicate polio had reduced active cases by 99.9% since 1988, the disease was still on the move in the early 2000s. In places like Kano, Nigeria, local Islamic leaders banned the vaccine over post-September 11th suspicions of Western medicine. Vaccinations eventually resumed, but the damage had been done. Within a few years, hundreds of new cases of polio were reported in Nigeria and bordering countries.

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A worker of the International Medical Crops vaccinates an Afghan child against polio in Peshawar, 09 May 2006. Pakistan launched a major campaign to vaccinate 14 million children against the crippling polio virus, part of an UN-backed drive to consign the disease to history.
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An Afghan girl with polio and a man who lost his leg sit at an ICRC hospital September 11, 2002 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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Fawad Rahmani, 11, makes his way home using his crutches and special braces fitted from the ICRC Orthopedic clinic in Kabul, Afghanistan. 
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Aminu Ahmed mounts a modified motorcycle with side wheels and hand-brake that he uses to get around despite having lost use of his legs to polio in Kano, Nigeria.      
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Bismillah Gul, 12, suffering from polio waits for his father after having traveled from Khost province to get treatment at the International Committee of the Red Cross orthopedic center in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Today and beyond


In 2016, polio affected 37 children in only three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Though this is the lowest annual case count in history, experts believe that if the disease is not fully eradicated within 10 years time, we could see as many as 200,000 new cases of polio across the globe each year.

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Ghanaian teenagers who contracted polio and lost their walking ability, play soccer in Tudu district of Accra, Ghana. Teenagers who maintain their lives by begging for money on the traffic roads in Ghana, gather to play soccer with their skateboards every Sunday.
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A Yemeni child receives a polio vaccination during an immunization campaign at a health center in the capital Sanaa.
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Pakistani policemen stand guard as a health worker administers polio drops to a child.

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